My mother, Avon lady



Ding dong, Avon calling. Not any more, dearie. Avon, the door-to-door cosmetic company, is gone, just like Nelson’s Pillar, and knickerbocker glories in Cafolla’s on O’Connell Street, and the three-tiered cake stands weighed down with eclairs and cream slices on the marble-topped tables in Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street.

Them was the days, eh? When the pinnied waitress would come to the table with a docket to count your cake intake, and bumptious men in wet overcoats would stub out their Sweet Aftons, shake out their inky evening papers, and stride to their assignations under Clerys clock.

Avon ladies. I can remember their shadows through the spokes of bubble-glass on our front door. Ding dong. It was as if the back-combed continuity announcer had stepped right out of the black-and-white telly with the bunnies’ ears on it, and materialised in the kitchen, settling her tweedy blue-zippered case on the lidded single-wringer washing machine, and smiling at you through her tangerine lip shimmer.

They were like earthed air hostesses, those industrious Avon ladies: the glamour, the scent, the nylons, the patent-leather shoes, worn a little at the heel maybe, what with all the traipsing up and down people’s barren front gardens in the hope of selling the lady of the house a rose-tinted blush.

To be honest, until I read this week about the downsizing of the global operation and the blanket closure of the Irish one – “all part of a drive to save the American company $400 million by 2016” – I had assumed that Avon had long gone.

I thought Avon, and the whole door-to-door-selling malarkey, had gone out with bawneen caps and starched antimacassars and fish on Fridays and double gussets and buses without back doors.

But no: since the unexpected announcement, which means that thousands of part-time Avon ladies will be sidelined, phone lines to the company’s representatives have been hopping. Distraught and loyal customers are jamming the helplines, desperate to know where they’ll score their bust-sculpting cream now that the mothership has taken off, leaving them to a bleak future of sagging mammaries and a droopy decolletage.

Bust Sculpt, a firming and enhancing cream, was a tremendously ample seller apparently, even if the testimonials sound as if they were written by Monty Python. Here’s one woman’s online paean to the product: “I’ve been using this product for over five years and nobody has actually noticed that I’ve stopped wearing a bra.” And here’s another: “I’ve been using it on the backs of my thighs and under my arms, and it made them feel so silky smooth.” Maybe somebody should give that woman a map.

My dreams came true
Anyway, one rainy day when I was a little girl in a home-made poncho (which I wore around my waist to pretend to be a Cossack dancer), my soap-on-a-rope dreams came true. The poncho and I came in from an arduous session of straight-leg kicking until the rubber boots flew off, and there, at the kitchen table, was my mother in a white fun-fur coat and a white turban.

Her face was decorated with scarlet lips, a black beauty spot and little painted wings striking off into the distance where her eyelids ended. On the table was a dark turquoise-zippered case. My mother had been anointed; she had become an Avon lady.

My own mother was the keeper of the case, the roper of the soap, the lady with the goods. Hell, she was the gal with the free samples, including two bottles of bubble bath that glistened like molten emeralds.

It lasted about a week. She hawked the case around the parish; I followed as far as I could in my unfashionable footwear.

“I want nothing and you can close the garden gate on your way out,” is one response she can still recall 40 years later. Another woman greeted her effusively and asked her to come in and advise her on the colour of her curtains.

Nobody bought anything; no door yielded. Nothing, nada, not a sausage.

At night, while she lay in a greenish bath, I unpacked and repacked the contents of her case, jewel after jewel, prize after prize, glittering treasure after glittering treasure.

My mother is 85 now, and she still won’t put the bins out without her make-up on. When I asked her what she remembered about her shortlived stint as an Avon lady, she said: “The women didn’t like me. Nobody wanted to see someone glammed up in the morning.”

The soap on a rope was china-blue. Somehow it never found its way back into the tweedy case at the end of my mother’s less-than-glittering career. It hung over the bath tap, diminishing and diminishing, until one day its glamour had entirely faded and all that was left was a dangling damp cord.